Climate Change is Just a Theory

or Why the term 'denier' is being used incorrectly and counterproductively

by Glen Wallace

I would consider myself to be a 'tree hugging nature lover' and yet I still might be accused of being a climate change 'denier'.  However, I might acquire that D word label even though I don't consider climate change to be a hoax or necessarily wrong -- I just am open to the possibility that it could be wrong.  I think climate change could be wrong because I believe the term 'climate change' refers to a scientific theory, and I believe that all theories, scientific and otherwise, are open to debate and questioning as to being partially or wholly wrong.

Perhaps my position of openness is the result of undergraduate and graduate school philosophy courses in the philosophy of science and my one undergraduate philosophy course in epistemology that covers the theory of knowledge.  In those courses I learned of the great difficulty, if not outright impossibility of achieving any high degree of certainty in the realm of theory.

But unfortunately, the debate over climate change has become so politically charged that an equivalency tends to occur in the minds of general public between believing climate change is true and a high valuation of nature and environmental protection.  I, however, treat the two topics as entirely separate.  I treat the question of the veracity of the climate change theory as a positivistic question of whether the theory is true or false.  But in terms of the question of how high to value nature and its associated environments and ecosystems, I treat as a normative question of how we should treat nature and the environment.

I highly value nature and the environment so I think they should be protected, nurtured and treated with respect -- but I arrive at those beliefs about protecting the environment by way of my personal values, not through empirical scientific observations.  Sure, I might get upset when I see a beautiful woodland get bulldozed, but I would not categorize such an observation as one of observing the 'wrongness' of the destruction of that land.  In science, right and wrong are not observable phenomena.  In that hypothetical woodland getting bulldozed all that can be categorized as empirical observations are what can be seen with the eyes or maybe tested with a chemistry set or measured with a scale.  Maybe after all the bulldozing was complete, the number of downed trees could be counted and after sawing the trunks the tree rings could also be counted to determine the trees age.  The soil could be tested to determine its composition and suitability for building on it.  Then the landscape could be assessed with the angle of grade measured.  But those are just mere empirical observations of the environment.  However, if someone were to stand at the edge of the clearing and claim that all the trees in the new clearing are still standing, then it might be fair to charge that person with being 'in denial' of some prima facie evident fact.

So, it seems like two mistakes are made in charging someone with being a 'denier' in reference to climate change -- first, in treating the so-called denier as someone not able to face some individual fact, when it is about a theory, not a fact, and the second mistake is in confusing matters of values with matters of fact.  While I may think that any given piece of natural land should be preserved from development, I'm not going to accuse anyone who disagrees with me and favors development as being 'in denial'.  Even in the realm of scientific theory, while not made up of one fact, such theories are supposed to be based on facts, not values.

While the defenders of a theory may claim that their theory is based on facts, it is not clear what exactly is meant by the word 'based'.  The biggest problem with any scientific theory is that it is never observable as whole thing in itself, all at once.  In the case of climate change, there are a number of individual empirically verifiable readings, such as thermometer readings and co2 readings that have a high degree of certainty, but no single reading is representative of the climate change theory as a whole.

Instead, the theory as a whole postulates not only aspects about the entire planet's current climate status, including places where no readings were taken, but also what the primary cause is -- in this case human generated co2 -- and what those causes will lead to in terms of empirically verifiable climate status many years into the future.  Because the preceding suppositions necessary to form the climate change theory are not something that can be empirically verified all at once, the scientific theorist has to engage in a great deal of creative conjecture in order to form the intelligible construct that is a scientific theory.

Another way of putting it is to think of a theory as a sort of completed connect the dots drawing where the dots on the page represent individual empirical readings.  But to form a theory, not only must the scientist connect those dots so that an intelligible form develops, but she also must explain how that form came to be and what it will look like at some point in the future.  As you can see there is a great deal of development required on the part of the scientist beyond what is presented by the limited specific data.  Even when we are dealing with the current empirical readings the theorist has to draw the lines between those dots to form the whole current state of affairs that is supposed to be all empirically written but clearly is not.  All you have are those individual readings and in the case of the climate, statements are made about the temperature of the entire atmosphere around the earth.  While there may be a simple way to gauge the temperature of the entire human body by putting a thermometer in the mouth or scanning a forehead with a specialized temperature reader, even the most ardent climate change believer will have to admit there is nothing that approaches that simplicity in gauging the temperature of the earth's atmosphere at any given time.  Instead there is theories within theories about how to best gauge the earth's atmospheres general temperature such as whether a buoy is more representative than a a reading taken from a ship.

When looking at the problems of what readings are best in trying to determine the current climate status, the complexity of the climate change theory begins to emerge.  Getting the current reading is supposed to be the least theoretical part of the theory.  But when one looks at the entire globe one finds a plasma of constantly changing atmospheric conditions that creates a 'herding cats' conundrum when trying to gauge the general temperature of the planet at any given time.  But even if the scientists settle on a given set of readings there is still the part of connecting those readings in what I like to call it a 'connect the datum dots drawing'.  There is no empirical way to verify that as the scientist draws her pen between the dots, that the line she is forming is accurate and correct.  But that is of course greatly simplifying the theorizing process.  It is not unheard of for scientists to sometimes ignore some empirical readings that don't fit with their drawing of the theory -- maybe they are not supposed to do that, but it happens.  Scientists are fallible human beings that are prone to engage in confirmation bias.  What is acknowledged that scientists can do is to form a line on a graph that smooths out the line by putting the line inside or outside of some of those 'dots'.  But what distance the line can be put away from the empirical 'dots' is further a matter of more theory.

Mind you, I think the climate change theory could be correct, I'm just thinking that not only are all theories questionable, the climate change theory has a higher degree of uncertainty due to the great number of variables given we are talking about the climate for the entire planet, the wide span of time involved in the theory and the difficulty in seeing a scenario to falsify the theory --  and falsifiability has long been held as a Hallmark for theory to be considered to even be a scientific theory in the first place.

Instead, what has happened is a great deal of politicization of a scientific issue.  What many of my fellow tree hugging lefties seem to have done is confuse the strength of their values for nature and the earth with the epistemological strength for the climate change theory.  Where I see a matter-of-fact, non-normative issue of the epistemological justification for one particular theory, so many others see believing the climate change theory as true as being equal to the normative belief that one should respect, value and treasure the earth and the natural world.  I agree with those values about valuing the earth but I don't believe those values are equal with beliefs about the veracity of the climate change theory -- I hold that those are two completely separate subject matters.

But I do believe that regardless of whether one still holds climate change as certainly true, I don't think that progressives should still use the term 'denier'.  They shouldn't use 'denier' because it is counterproductive insofar as the term is pejorative and as a result tends to antagonize and alienate individuals that we might otherwise have been able to persuade to support our environmentalist positions.

There are some individuals, a few of whom I believe are mainstream scientists, that believe we are in the beginnings of a 'grand solar minimum' that will soon result in a new mini ice age for the planet.  It is not the dominant climatic change theory, the 'climate change' theory about the planet warming from human generated CO2 is currently the dominant climatology paradigm -- but paradigm dominance, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his book 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions',  is a function more of political power within the scientific community than epistemological power of the theory held by the dominant paradigm.

But when I hear someone complain about a 'denier' if they argue at all about what is being denied by the 'denier', the claim is made that they are denying that a huge majority of scientists believe that the climate change theory is true.  While there has been some significant disagreements by 'deniers' about how many mainstream scientists agree with climate change, along with some allegations of outright fraud on the number of scientific signers on to the climate change bandwagon, I don't think the proportion of scientists 'signing on' to climate change is what the 'deniers' are alleged to being in denial about.  It seems like given the context of the term in where it is used, the term 'denier' refers to someone who is not able to face the reality of the veracity of the climate change theory itself, not the number or proportion of scientists who have signed on to it.  So, it ends up with the accusers shifting the narrative of the argument in order for the term 'denier' to fit the accusation.  The accusers are recognizing that they can't use the term 'denier' correctly if they end up accusing the 'deniers' of merely disagreeing with or questioning a theory.  The term 'denier' in the sense that it is being used is in reference to someone who refuses to acknowledge an obvious individual fact.  But any examination of the term 'climate change' quickly reveals that it refers to not merely an individual fact, but also the cause, human generated carbon dioxide, of a set of facts and where the causes will lead the entire planet to for decades into the future.  As a result, the accusers realize, consciously or not, that it would be inappropriate to accuse someone of being 'in denial' of something that is clearly not an obvious individual fact -- the climate change theory itself.  So the accusers shift the accusation to another related topic, namely, an alleged fact of the number or proportion of scientists that have signed onto the climate change theory.  But really, when the term 'denier' is used in the common language environment, it is not specifically referring to someone who refuses to acknowledge the number or proportion of scientists agreeing with the climate change theory,  the term 'denier' is referring to anyone that does not acknowledge as true the climate change theory.  But the accusers realize that it doesn't make any sense to accuse someone of denying the veracity of something theoretical.

In many cases I think environmentalists would have a much better chance of success with their causes and issues if they not only stopped using the term 'denier' but also stopped in many cases using the term 'climate change'.  In doing so we environmentalists could garner more support for our causes from those who politically don't consider themselves 'tree huggers' or  'environmentalists' but who in fact have been labeled a 'denier' in the past -- while retaining all the support from people who do consider themselves 'tree huggers' and environmentalists and climate change believers.

I often hear a lot of double standards from climate change theory proponents.  I think there is a double standard when lefties complain that it is wrong for those on the political right to accuse lefty protesters of being paid to protest by George Soros and then turn around and accuse anyone of publicly questioning climate change of being paid to question it by big oil.  In reality, unless there is clear evidence of such payola occurring, people should refrain from making such accusations.  Additionally, even if someone thinks they have good evidence of payola, they should be mindful of the limits of the merits of such accusations.  First and foremost of the limitations is the one of ad hominem.  In other words, even if payola is occurring, that in no way is a step towards refuting the climate change skeptic -- nor is payola in any way an argument against what the protesters stand for.   If a climate change skeptic is on the payroll of big oil, but is correct in his stance, the money doesn't in any way change the accuracy of the skeptics position.  Likewise, if protesters are being funded by Soros or some other billionaire, but are standing for an ideal social political ordering of society, those paychecks do not in any way undermine the political philosophy that the protesters are publicly supporting -- that ordering of society that they support would still be ideal.

I can imagine someone reading this might be thinking of all the evidence supporting the climate change theory.  But I would respond again that climate change could be correct.  I'm not intending that this essay support or undermine the climate change position in any way -- I'm just trying to argue that the term 'climate change' refers to a theory and that, as a result, it should be open to continual debate and questioning.  I believe in general, society and the dialogue within it should be open minded and understanding where the free exchange of ideas would be welcomed and encouraged.  However, it seems like the climate change topic has become highly politicized and politics in general has become sportified -- as in; like a team sport where it's us versus them and everyone rallies around their team, "ra ra go team go".

What each side should be doing is looking to the evidence the other side is attempting to use to support the other sides position.  In science you should strive to refute your own position.  But instead what I see is a reliance on confirmation bias to support their own theory, whether that theory is imminent global warming or imminent mini ice age.  And that is the problem with relying on confirmations -- seeming confirmations can always be found, even for two mutually exclusive theories.  A Global Warming and Mini Ice Age cannot happen simultaneously.  And yet each side has no problem finding evidence to support their belief that their side is correct and their corresponding climate changing phenomena is imminent and has already begun.  That's the problem with confirmations -- there can always be found confirmations, even for two mutually exclusive positions.  A new mini ice age in the next few years and global warming in the next few years cannot both happen simultaneously, but there are plenty of confirmations available as evidence that such an impossibility will indeed happen.  There has been both record heat waves and horrible hurricanes as confirmatory evidence for imminent global warming, but there has also been unusual record cold spells recently, especially in the southern hemisphere which just got over a brutal winter.

A comparison could be made between the field of medicine and climatology where the global warming climate change theory is analogous to a medical diagnosis. Physicians know that the proper way to go about reaching a diagnosis is not, after coming up with an idea about what the patient might have, to go looking for confirmations to support a diagnosis that the patient does have the condition initially suspected. Rather, the doctor is supposed to try to rule out the possible suspected condition and if, after a good faith effort to rule out the condition has failed, then the doctor may make a judgment call of a diagnosis of the suspected condition that failed to be refuted. But even after the diagnosis is made, the doctor should always be open to the possibility that they are wrong and be on the lookout for indications that might tend to falsify the diagnosis. If, for instance, a colleague sees something that might indicate a different diagnosis, the original diagnosing doctor would not yell at her colleague: “denier!”. But that effectively is what is going on in the realm of public discourse regarding the issue of climate change. While climate change is clearly analogous to a diagnoses for the patient named Earth, climate change is being treated more like a single symptom in terms of the level of certainty of veracity. Yet anyone who so much as questions the diagnoses for the earth is yelled at for being a denier.

There is a certain irony that, if anything, the 'denier' accusers are the ones in denial of the fact that the term 'climate change' refers to a theory and not a fact.  But the sense of the term 'denier' in which it is being used is referring to someone who is either unable or is refusing to acknowledge an obvious individual fact.  But if 'climate change' refers to a theory, anyone who is questioning it can't be accused of being 'in denial' of a fact -- they are merely questioning a mere theory.  And all theories have some level of uncertainty.  I believe, however, that the premise that climate change is a theory can be classified as a fact because the term 'climate change' in the sense and context that it is used, can be broken down or analyzed a priori.  That analysis reveals a belief about the climate that cannot be known analytically a priori or entirely synthetic a posteriori, but instead requires beliefs that are classified synthetic a priori.  That is, climate change requires beliefs that are justified not through empirical experience but requires creative conjecture on the part of the the scientist formulating the theory.  Yes, there is a great deal of empirical evidence being used to support the climate change theory, but that evidence is not sufficient to support the theory as a whole thing in itself.  The theory requires beliefs about the climate that cannot be experienced -- most notably beliefs about the future of the climate, temperature readings between thermometers and the causal chain of events leading to the current climatic conditions and where those causes will lead the climate to into the future.  But less apparent is how climate change and many other scientific theories require beliefs about causation.  And while it may seem like causes can be observed, the causes in themselves are unobservable.  When we think we are observing a cause, what we are really seeing is a close concurrence of events, but the cause itself we do not see.

I would define a paradigm as a theory supported by more than one person.  Once multiple people begin supporting one theory, a political movement forms as a political force within and sometimes without the scientific community.  In the case of climate change, the paradigm has extended well beyond the scientific community.

Looking at other related theories to help understand the climate theory we need only look under our feet.  First, there is the theory known as 'peak oil' the postulated that somewhere around the early 1990's, we would reach a point where maximum possible withdrawal of oil from the earth could be achieved.  After that peak oil point was reached, we would find it progressively more difficult to extract oil from the earth because all the easily accessible oil had already been withdrawn.  If memory serves me correctly, this peak oil theory seemed to reach 'peak popularity' both within and without the scientific community in the early 2000's.  However, once we actually reached that point in time where, if the theory was correct, oil companies would start to have to expend more energy to extract the difficult to reach oil that was left than the energy content of the oil extracted from the ground; leading to prohibitively expensive oil, if there was any company willing to go to the trouble of extracting the stuff; the once popular theory seemed to have escaped the popular memory of the general public.  But, I still remember those times when there was many articles in magazines and discussions on the radio where everyone seemed to be up in arms about the civil disaster that would result once the point of peak oil was passed and all that petroleum that we have become so dependent on for our modern developed world lifestyle would no longer be readily available.  But as that predicted peak oil point actually started to approach, that seemed to be around the time that the ratcheting up of the climate change concern in the popular press and academia began.  

Science is supposed to work through a process of elimination rather than through a process of confirmation.  One of the Hallmarks of a scientific theory is for it to be falsifiable.  There needs to be some way, preferably some form of empirical testing or a scenario of empirical  circumstances presented, that the proponents of the theory acknowledge will represent falsification of their theory.  Things don't necessarily always work out so simply but falsification is an ideal to shoot for.  Now that we have entered a period that seems to falsify the peak oil theory given the continued abundance of oil to the point where if anything there is a glut of oil and the OPEC countries are trying to get each other to limit their production to boost the price of oil, there doesn't seem to be a lot of awareness of how this shows how fallible scientists can be when it comes to advocating for scientific theories.   Few people seem to be saying "if all those scientists could be so wrong about peak oil, then maybe they could be wrong about climate change also."  Instead, just the opposite seems to be occurring to the point where it seems almost forbidden to even entertain or consider the possibility that all those scientists could be wrong about climate change.  But at least with the peak oil theory there was some way presented to falsify the the theory.  With climate change I have a hard time finding any way to falsify it.  At this point we need to consider the question of whether the climate change theory can be classified as a scientific theory in the first place.  Under what empirical circumstances would the proponents of climate change admit their theory refuted?

But the possible refutation of the peak oil theory has the effect of calling into question the veracity of a whole other theory -- namely, the fossil fuel theory.  A possible explanation why peak oil didn't come about is because the theory that petroleum crude oil is the byproduct of ancient decomposition of plant and animal matter may be false.  The thinking that led to peak oil is that there is effectively a set amount of oil locked under the ground from those ancient decompositions, and for all intents and purposes petroleum is not renewable because it takes extremely long for that transformation process from biological matter to crude oil to naturally occur.  But the fossil fuel theory has a competing theory that may explain away the failure of peak oil -- it is commonly referred to as the abiotic oil theory.  The abiotic oil theory postulates that instead of biological matter slowly transforming into crude oil, the earth effectively synthesizes crude oil through chemical reactions underneath the earth's crust.   And this synthesizing process occurs continuously and much more quickly than the fossil fuel process.  As a result, the reserves of oil can in some cases be replenished as fast or almost as fast as they are extracted.  While some may argue that the glut of oil is due to the newer fracking process and not the abiotic replenishment process, that could be but I believe Saudi Arabia is still using the traditional oil drilling extraction methods but has not seen peak oil happen as predicted.  But as a result of the possible refutation of the fossil fuel theory, I have come up with a theory neutral term for what we refer to as fossil fuels: namely 'earthen hydrocarbon fuels'.  I will still however sometimes use the old fossil fuel term, especially in conversations, just so as not to have to go through all the explanations as to what I mean by 'earthen hydrocarbon fuel' and why I'm not simply saying 'fossil fuel'.  After all I am still referring to the same thing either way.  And I would also like to point out that I think, regardless of the veracity of the climate change theory, we should get away from earthen hydrocarbon fuels as quickly as possible.  We need to get away from those fuels because they are just so dirty when throughout the whole process of dealing with earthen hydrocarbon fuels, from even the initial exploration to the extraction to the transportation and finally the burning of the fuels. There are plenty of reasons to get away from earthen hydrocarbon fuels besides any theory about how their combustion affects the long term behavior of the global climatic system.

But either way, I'm trying to show how much uncertainty there is in science when it comes to theories.  While it seems like peak oil and fossil fuel theories have been undermined by oil production levels reached in recent years, I'm certainly not going to accuse anyone who still subscribes to those theories of being a 'denier' or 'in denial' of some obvious individual fact.  There is nothing obvious about the veracity of any scientific theory.  There is always some legitimate explanation or reason that can be given for any seeming refutational evidence.

So, instead of pasting a scarlet letter 'D' on anyone who dares to question the dominant climate change theory so they may be shunned and shamed by the community or crying "grab the pitchforks and torches, for we have a denier in our midst" we should be finding other reasons and ways to sway others to our environmentalist side.  And I think there are plenty of areas where those who we maybe assumed were hopelessly against environmental causes actually share our opinions about the natural world.   I think most people, regardless of political persuasion tend to naturally value the natural world in its pristine state.  Most people do not want to drink, boat in, swim in or wade in polluted waters.  Most people don't want to breath polluted air but instead would love to get a chance to escape to the green countryside and breath in some fresh air.  But slinging pejorative accusations against others of being unable to acknowledge reality will only tend to lead those other fold to further dig their heels into the ground to the point where they won't even listen to any points we might bring where some shared values could be found.  So instead of slinging the 'D word' at anyone, why not present some progressive environmental points where they might just agree with us on.  For one, we could start by emphasizing all the jobs and economic benefit from all those solar panels manufactured and installed across the nation -- not to mention the independence those solar panels can bring to all those preppers wanting to live off the grid.  On that point of being 'off the grid' I have found that it seems like the opposite ends of the political spectrum seem to be equally interested in achieving that end  -- both the right wing survivalist and the leftie earthy granola person both want to get off and away from the industrialized corporate 'developed civilization'.

Even if we are to take as a given that state of affairs in terms of the earth's climate prognosis are roughly equal to the current dominant paradigm of climate change, it still could be possible that the etiology or cause of that prognosis is different from the consensus.  It could even be that humans are the primary cause of any climate change but it is not the CO2 that is that primary cause.  Rather, there is a whole host of potential ramifications that can be postulated from mankind's various alterations to the earth and the atmosphere that could potentially alter the course of the planet's weather patterns.  One possible such cause that I can think of is the matter of the urban heat island effect.  While mainstream climatologists and meteorologists recognize that the heat island effect is real, they seem to be inclined to think that it is limited to influencing the temperatures close to the urban areas causing the effect.  However, along with the alleged global warming there has been a corresponding growth in urbanization around the planet.  Couple that fact with the fact that those climate scientists have a very limited understanding of what causes climate patterns to develop in the first place.   About all the weather forecasters can do is use their knowledge of past weather patterns along with computers to process that knowledge to generate forecasts that have a decent level of accuracy of just a few days into the future.  One would think if the climate scientists were so sure of the effects of any variable on the atmosphere, whether it be CO2 or asphalt pavement, they would be able to accurately forecast the weather weeks, months or even years into the future.